Loyalty in rugby league: Reality or myth

Bernie Gurr Columnist

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    Andrew Fifita should be able to do whatever he likes (AAP Image/SNPA, Teaukura Moetaua)

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    The NRL leaves itself open to criticism of disloyalty with players committing to new clubs before the expiration of current contracts.

    This feeling of fan sadness is exaggerated by the player often still having the majority of a season to complete before leaving.

    The recent signing then cancellation by the Bulldogs of a contract with Andrew Fifita, currently playing with Cronulla, has re-ignited this issue. The Sharks signed Fifita a few years ago when he was not wanted at the Wests Tigers. Fifita has blossomed into one of the best front-row forwards in the world, and has represented Australia and New South Wales.

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    Many Sharks fans and other rugby league supporters believe Fifita owes the Sharks some loyalty. However, what does this concept of loyalty in rugby league really mean? Are players simply behaving as you and I do in improving our career situation?

    The difference is players are doing this in a public environment and as part of a sport that, thankfully, generates much emotional attachment to players. Let’s give some perspective or context.

    The Bulldogs and Andrew Fifita’s management company simply played by the NRL’s current rules regarding signing players. I have a problem with the rules themselves, but that’s a topic for another day, so back to the loyalty issue.

    Rugby league fans regularly complain about a lack of loyalty in the game, the fundamental premise being that there once was in the ‘good old days’. Older fans (yes, I would be in that group) tend to look at the past through rose-coloured glasses. We think the game was formerly full of players who played their entire careers at the one club in front of appreciative fans.

    A review of actual player movements over the past 50 or more years reveals a vastly different story. Even the greatest players changed clubs. Johnny Raper was a Newtown junior and first-grader before being snapped up by an astute St George in 1959. Bob Fulton played 11 seasons at Manly from 1966 to 1976, then signed with Eastern Suburbs for 1977 to 1979.

    Arthur Beetson played with Balmain from 1966 through 1970, with Eastern Suburbs from 1971 to 1978 before finishing his career in the then NSWRL competition with Parramatta in 1979 and 1980. Wally Lewis was a Valleys junior and senior grade player, then achieved Brisbane Premiership success with Wynnum-Manly.

    Even the legendary Clive Churchill left South Sydney in acrimonious financial circumstances at the end of the 1958 season.

    Other great players also changed clubs. Kevin Ryan, Monty Porter and Billy Wilson left St George for Canterbury, Cronulla and North Sydney. Ken Irvine played with North Sydney then Manly.

    Ron Coote left South Sydney for Eastern Suburbs, Bob McCarthy and Gary Stevens departed there for stints at Canterbury, while John O’Neill, Ray Branighan and Bob Moses went to Manly.

    Denis Pittard played with Western Suburbs, South Sydney and Parramatta. John Quayle went to Parramatta from Eastern suburbs. John Dorahy, Les Boyd and Ray Brown played at Western Suburbs then all three transferred to Manly in 1980.

    There are hundreds of other examples. The point is that rugby league was founded as a professional sport in Australia in 1908 and players have searched for the best deal ever since, as they should given the relatively short span of a professional career and the inherent dangers of our great sport.

    Players change clubs for many and varied reasons. Better money helps, but also increased financial security via a longer-term contract than offered by their current club. They may not get along with the coach, or want an opportunity to play regular first grade in a certain position.

    They may not like the management and direction of their current club, or may believe their new club has a better chance to win a Premiership. They may want to live in another area, or get closer to family.

    Players also stay with clubs for a variety of reasons, and accept lower pay because they genuinely love their current club, or like the area and are settled with their family. They may be confident of the club’s prospects, get on with the coach and teammates, or be worried their chance to play representative football may diminish at a weaker club.

    Often the player who accepts less money to stay at his current club is viewed as demonstrating loyalty, but the reality is that the player, his family and his agent have assessed all the relevant factors, both financial and non-financial, in order to arrive at the best decision. The non-financial factors should not be under-estimated.

    Bottom line is that players justifiably make decisions in their own best interests, as we all do, and as clubs do. Glenn Stewart is off contract at Manly at the end of the 2014 season and is frustrated by the lack of urgency being shown by the Manly management. Fans are now signing petitions and demanding Manly show loyalty to one of their favourite players. Clubs often push contracted players out, principally due to the demands of the salary cap.

    All we can ask is that clubs and players honour legal obligations and act with integrity and transparency.

    In my time as Sydney Roosters CEO in the early 2000s, we had a player who was contracted but we were strong in his position and the coaching staff did not see him as part of the first-grade squad. We negotiated a settlement with the player’s agent and the player went on to play many first grade games with his new club.

    The reality is that loyalty is a misunderstood concept within the context of professional sport.

    It is great to see players who are able to play their entire career at one club – Anthony Minichiello, Steve Menzies, Wayne Pearce to name a few – but, on reflection, they may not be any more loyal than players who have played for a number of clubs. Rather, the circumstances and objectives of these one-club players and their clubs fortunately aligned throughout their career.

    Loyalty is defined as “faithfulness to commitments or obligations”, so the player’s commitment is to his current club. Loyalty as a concept is usually directed towards a person, a group of people, a belief or one’s country, not as part of a financial transaction or work situation.

    The fans simply want to see players contributing to their teams with maximum effort and these great players mentioned above, who played for more than one club, played with total commitment and so provided great service to themselves and the game.

    So, do not be too critical of the players – they are only doing what you or I would do in a similar situation.

    Loyalty is an extremely admirable quality among family and friends or for honourable causes but is not always relevant in professional sport.

    Bernie Gurr is a former Sydney Roosters player (1978-1983) and Chief Executive Officer (1994-2003), presiding over eight straight playoff appearances, three grand finals and the 2002 NRL Premiership. A lifelong league fan, his first memory is being taken to the 1965 grand final by his grandfather. Prior to CEO role at the Roosters, Bernie was a Senior Executive for the 1994 World Cup in the United States. He joins as a regular columnist on The Roar, but to read more of his writing on rugby league check out his website and follow him on Twitter @BernieGurr.